Thursday, 17 October 2013

A Scarlett By Any Other Name...

Scarlett...or Elsie?
  ...simply wouldn't do. I mean, can you imagine Rhett Butler getting all hot under the collar over a heroine called Elsie Ribblethwaite? Come to that, would Scarlett say anything other than a quick "Fiddlededee!" if Rhett were plain Sid Rowbottom?
Rhett...or Sid?

 Ah yes, I can see it now, Sid and Elsie strolling off into the sunset... 

Er - no - I don't think so either. Never mind, as a certain lady said, "Tomorrow is another day."

You see, it's all in the name, isn't it? A rose by any other name might well smell as sweet, but as writers, our characters need to have names that perfectly evoke their personalities. To return to Gone With The Wind for a second, the very name Scarlett O'Hara evokes a fiery, passionate temperament, leaving the writer free to merely colour in the details and show us all the many wonderful ways in which she lives up to that glorious name.

 Margaret Mitchell named her characters wisely. Rhett Butler has to be a dashing, darkly handsome hero even before he opens his mouth, whereas Ashley Wilkes conjurs up a much gentler, less exciting prospect. As for Melanie - well you couldn't imagine her tearing down the velvet curtains to make a dress, could you? Her name simply wouldn't allow it.
In Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte names her dark, morose and dangerous hero, Heathcliff. A common name then? Far from it. So, where did this quiet, respectable spinster daughter of the village parson come up with such a name? If a number of sources are to be believed, Emily actually invented it. It certainly doesn't seem to have been around before her time, so maybe they are correct. The name itself works perfectly. 'Heath' - transports us to the wild and windy moorland around Haworth where the story is set. In late summer, purple heather blooms in abundance. 'Cliff' - the whole area is in the heart of the Pennines - all rugged, steep hills and mountains. Heathcliff could only come from such an area (OK, I know he started off as a waif and stray Mr Earnshaw brings home from Liverpool, but he never returns there, does he?) 

Of course, Emily could simply have used the established boy's name, Heath. No, it doesn't work for me either. Perfectly respectable name of course. Nothing wrong with it. In fact, says about the name 'Heath', "People with this name have a deep inner desire for a stable, loving family or community, and a need to work with others and to be appreciated".

 Well, that's all right then...just as long as you don't want a dark, haunted and emotionally tangled hero. It clearly didn't suit Emily, so she added the suffix, 'cliff' and opened up a whole new character, as powerful and windswept as his surroundings.

Oh Mrs Lilywhite, you scared me! Not

There are scores of other examples. The sinister housekeeper in Rebecca, for example. Daphne du Maurier gave her a strong name - Mrs Danvers. Would she have been quite so scary if she'd called her Mrs Lilywhite?

Emily's sister, Charlotte was no slouch when it came to appropriate names either. Her eponymous heroine, Jane Eyre, evokes an image of an ordinary young woman - yet there is a strength of character in that name too. It's a solid, monosyllabic coupling. No one with the name Jane Eyre could ever be an emptyheaded, silly little flibbertigibit, and Charlotte doesn't let us down. Jane's honesty, commonsense and sense of fairness endear her to her employer, Edward Rochester. As for him, he simply had to have a tortured personality to go with that name. And, sure enough, he's got the insane Bertha hidden away in the attic and secrets hidden in every shadowy corner.

OK, by now, you know I love playing with names to get the right ones for my characters. A current main character endured four name changes before I got her right. Well, for now, anyway. If she starts going off at a tangent and behaving in an un-Eve-like way, she'll simply have to be rechristened!


  1. Oh Antonia... I only had a moment to skim this yesterday but no U have had the chance to drool over the pics I must say.....Frankly my dear, this is your best post yet. Though I am bias.... Hands down GWTW is my favourite movie. And the name Heathcliff...well.

  2. P s 0kay having wiped the slavers.. I totally agree re names. So important. Just thnking of other wonderful Ebeneezer Scrooge....Fagin...Mr Darcy even

    1. Oh yes, Dickens was a master of the art of naming his characters, Miss Austen got it right too

  3. Welcome Mz Van Zandt. Some favs here....Rebecca too.

    1. I saw the stage version in the tiny English Theatre in Vienna. The stage is so small that they have to be really inventive. For this production, they used mirrors in a really clever way to add depth and, with muted lighting, created shadows, so that when the figure of Mrs Danvers appeared at the top of the stairs, the atmosphere was really sinister and creepy. The entire audience seemed to hold its collective breath - including me!

  4. Now I saw this in the Pitlochry Tent Theatre. yes. Now long gone. And on the several miles walk back. to the middle of nowhere lodgings, at dead of night-- I am not even going to go there.... or speak of, the gates, hedges, ditches, leapt over with a friend, after being chased by a herd of cows. But you know cows can be scary. Especially after watching Rebecca.

  5. We never used to celebrate Halloween here in Australia. I'd never heard of it as a child. But these days it's getting more popular, driven by commercialism I suppose. However, I rather like the tradition behind it - the ghoulish, creepy stories - and I wonder if Aussie kids out there trick or treating have any idea of the richness behind the feast. Great article, Antonia. Thanks.